Thursday, September 27, 2012

Night Beach by Kirsty Eagar

First published by Penguin, 2012

It was important to me, that this book be brilliant. Kirsty’s Raw Blue is still one of the best YA books I’ve ever read. Night Beach covers similar territory - teen angst, identity, the beach, very Australian. I was so ready for her lovely writing, characters and story to sweep me away.

I admire the ambition of Night Beach. I think its gothic inclinations are rather beautiful – the imaginative ideas, the way they gel with the contemporary story. But I feel as if it wasn’t a successful melding, and I can’t really say why. I don’t know, I think it’s a mix of being a little too overwrought, a little too long, maybe even not feeling Eagar’s confidence with what she was doing. It might be that I think it all got a little indulgent? Whatever it is, I found (in the second half of the book especially) that it all got a little overdone and overworked, and all the single lovely things I’d enjoyed about the first half of the book all got a little eaten up by the complexities of the second half.

There are some Raw Blue moments that I really loved. Some of Abbie’s thoughts, the way the atmosphere builds and heightens, especially in a terrific scene that simply involves Abbie in her house, trying to walk upstairs. Wow. The gothic-flavoured moments of dread are electrifying. Of course, being a lover of the sea, I enjoyed once again the idea of Abbie drawing comfort from the ocean. Sometimes even I can’t explain my emotional connection to the sea, but hey, Eagar does it for me. She really gets that unknowable, sometimes terrifying power the ocean can have, and it heightens the atmosphere in the book.

I think Night Beach could have done with an extra edit. I would have liked to see all the little sub-plots (the baby-sitting, the Hollywood thing, her Dad and the new baby) tied together, or worked into the gothic narrative a bit more. The painting sub-plot is really the only thing that is worked fully and successfully into the supernatural elements. Also, the whole mystery surrounding Kane and the boys and what happened on the island – perfectly plausible, but I think I wanted something more.

I understood where Abbie was coming from; that deep, consuming ache for someone. But I wanted to shake her a little. I did find her a bit tedious at times; Carly in Raw Blue was full of emotional baggage but she was never, er, pathetic. But I understood her attraction to Kane, and I think her longing was captured realistically.

Hmm. An ambitious, unique, and frequently lovely book. Not 100% sold though.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What the Raven Saw sneak peek

Received the first page proofs for What the Raven Saw today. Just wanted to put up a sneak peek of the lovely illustrations that Tony Flowers has done (and also the gorgeous design). Can't wait till the book hits the shelves early next year - everyone at Random House has put in so much hard work and the result is mucho gorgeousness!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

First published in 2011, in Australia Sep 2012

Hmmm. Even without reading this book, I loved it. I saw it as a proof in my bookstore and grabbed it, flicked through a few really fantastic passages, and then took it home. As I read more and more, it lost a little of its appeal. All the little quirks that I started off enjoying began to annoy me, a tiny bit. It still held my interest. I still think it is a clever, mostly well-written and certainly unique book, but Where Things Come Back did lose me, just a little.

It was clever how Whaley tied the two main stories together, and all the other povs that are interspersed throughout. It made me want to keep reading, to see how they would come together, and also to see what he would do with all these non-linear timelines. He pulls it off. Stylistically, it is also clever to tie everything back to this idea of a small town going crazy for the appearance of the Lazarus woodpecker – to see how hope is a lovely thing, but it can also turn people a little crazy. The woodpecker is the symbolic heart of Where Things Come Back, and (from a writer’s perspective) I enjoy this kind of neat, simple, stylistic technique.

I thought this book was a case of the secondary, peripheral characters being the more interesting. I couldn’t warm to any of the main narrators. In fact, I think this is my main problem with the book. I didn’t really like anyone. And I don’t think it’s a reflection of their actual personalities, but the way they are written about – with a certain cynical, cold-hearted view. This book has warmth but it isn’t found in the characters, and that prevents me from caring. What I did enjoy was the way Whaley built up some characters, like Lucas and John Barling, so we formed an idea of them. And then he dropped a subtle bombshell which revealed all their hidden parts and motivations. The best example was when Cullen talks to John on the swing. Love moments like these.

I think the writing did show signs of this being a debut novel. It is very Dawson’s Creek. Full of emotion but in that cynical, referential way, that can be hip but is really, I feel, sometimes just disguised indulgence. It makes me smile the way people are always referred to by their full name. At the start I didn’t mind Cullen referring to himself in the third person but it does wear a little thin.

As for Cullen and his main crew – well they are so unobtrusively hip that it’s all pretty harmless. I can understand why some will love his cynical self. I felt all a bit blasé about it all. And I’m still not sure if the ending is real or not.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

First published in 1968

The Last Unicorn is one of my absolutely favourite books. I think Peter S. Beagle is one of the finest writers around – an absolute master of beautiful language, unique characters, imagination, warmth, humour and magical storytelling. He is one of those writers who can sum up grand emotion in a succinct, unique line. If you love fantasy and children’s books, then Beagle is an author who must be read. He has many fine stories – but my favourite is the very gorgeous The Last Unicorn.

I have a journal where I keep passages or lines from books that I think are particularly fine or moving – those lines that give you shivers – and The Last Unicorn features prominently in it. What he does best is write lines that illustrate loneliness and confusion; that really reach down into those emotions we keep embedded and tease them out of us. But these lines are never sappy or trying to be quote-worthy – they are often whimsical and silly and simple, but the resonance sweeps through all the pages. Beagle understands mortality, and people’s fears, and the many different guises with which they hide them. I love how he shows us the cracks in all his characters – he does it with such profound beauty and understanding.

The Last Unicorn may read like a fairytale – it has a princess and a prince; it has a quest and adventures through all the hidden parts of the world; it has a baddie and a beast, and it has secrets and a wicked adversary who is as evil as they come. Even just as this, it is a great story. But it is also very clever, and Beagle uses a tone that makes fun of it all but never snarkily, always with affection. There is a great sensitivity woven through all the pages and a sense of fun that subverts the genre even as it faithfully follows all the tropes.

One of the greatest things which keep The Last Unicorn rollicking along is that it is genuinely funny. The characters; the situations they find themselves in; the double-crosses; the human folly; the fabulous one-liners that flow so effortlessly. The pure, dazzling silliness of it all. My particular favourites are the talking skull and the magician Schmendrick when he is called upon to get himself out of a sticky situation or is making fun of everyone around him. His wit is legendary.

Which leads us to the characters in The Last Unicorn. They are all fabulous; nuanced; believable; entertaining; empathetic. I love the Unicorn and her motley crew – the lonely, sarcastic, jealous magician Schmendrick who cares too much; the bitter, no-nonsense Molly Grue with a heart of gold, and later, Prince Lir who believably and heart-breakingly emerges from a soft fool into a noble, hardened prince. The Unicorn herself, who is so brave and beautiful – but, for all her power, as full of doubts and weaknesses as her human companions.

But it doesn’t stop there. The baddies – most notably King Haggard and Mommy Fortuna – are glorious, complex characters who spit bitterness and hate but who, through a simple line from Beagle, reveal the fears and the insecurities that drive them to be so. And then all the other characters who float in and out of the pages – the talking cat, Captain Cully and Jack Jingly, the royal magician Mabruk, to name a few – are colourful, humorous creations, written with real warmth and imagination.

Imagination is where The Last Unicorn really wins for me. It is a wonderful concept in itself – being the last of your kind. The loneliness, the responsibility, the sadness in such an idea – I find this fascinating (which also tells me probably why I like Doctor Who so much – oh the adventures he has, but always and only ever, by himself). Everything that Beagle fills the pages with after this particular idea is just a bonus. The whole book just feels so graceful and enchanting – the kind of magic that you can’t shake off.

And really, it comes down to Beagle – his writing, his style. Read one of the first scenes between the Unicorn and a stray butterfly and you will understand something of his power. In this scene he uses words and ideas and emotions and weaves them together all so seamlessly, so powerfully, in the form of an erratic, dying butterfly. Brilliant. His writing is beautiful and effortless, and this, above all, is what makes The Last Unicorn such a triumphant children’s classic.

Previous entries, my fav Children's Books:

Number 20:  Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

Number 19:  The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Number 18:  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Number 17:  The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt

Number 16: The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber

Number 15: The Scarecrows by Robert Westall

Number 14: Watership Down by Richard Adams